California is truly one-of-a-kind, a sprawling state with its own unique sense of politics and one of the largest economies in the world. It’s a place where one could live their entire life and still not know all its secrets. Every region has its own culture, and those who live there often have a unique sense of pride in their state, whether born-and-bred or a transplant from elsewhere. Not surprisingly, California has a rich history, full of both bright spots and dark corners and the hopelessly mundane. And there are plenty of well-written books out there that explore that history. No matter how deep your personal stake or interest in the Golden State, these books offer lessons on life and history that readers will find fascinating.
The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont
By Shawn Levy
Doubleday, $28.95, 360 pages
The Chateau Marmont is a well-known landmark in California, an apartment building-turned-hotel that attracts all manner of celebrities and has since its opening in 1929. This book by author and former film critic Shawn Levy digs deep into the history of the Chateau, from its construction to its long and exciting life as a hotel. Levy especially details some of the most famous happenings at the hotel, the gossip and scandals that have made it a household name among film buffs and pop culture connoisseurs. While it’s true that much of this information could be found in back issues of various tabloids and popular magazines, there’s something to be said for having all the facts collected in one dedicated book, all told with Levy’s characteristic laid back and relatable words.
California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History
By Richard White
W. W. Norton & Company, $45.00, 320 pages
California has a rich and storied history, and much of it is darker than we’d like to acknowledge. Father and son team Richard and Jesse White delve into some of this history in this impressive new book. Jesse is an extremely talented photographer, and his pictures provide the backdrop for the various historical happenings that Richard expounds upon. Readers will learn about a number of interesting cities and sites and individuals and groups, as well as the reason why those places and people are notable. Be prepared to learn some things that aren’t covered in school history classes!
The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown
By Julia Flynn Siler
Knopf, $28.95, 448 pages
Slavery in the United States was largely abolished at the end of the Civil War, but the fact of the matter is that pockets of human trafficking have continued to exist for long after, even up to modern times. In this fascinating book, journalist Julia Flynn Siler explores slavery in a period of time that often gets overlooked by the history books: San Francisco’s Chinatown in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Siler focuses primarily on the Occidental Mission Home and the mostly white Christian women who ran it. These women worked tirelessly to rescue countless girls and women from slavery, and how it offered hope to those who were able to escape servitude on their own.
The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California
By Mark Arax
Knopf, $30.00, 576 pages
The Central Valley is one region of California that often gets somewhat overlooked by the rest of the country, overshadowed as it is by the Bay and SoCal. But the Valley is where one can find a great many of California’s farmers, and the area has been the driving force behind much of the state’s confusing water policies. In this book, California native Mark Arax explores the decades that shaped how much of the state gets its water, and how those policies have helped to grow some of California’s biggest agricultural empires–and how they may someday be one of farming’s downfalls.
Arequipa Sanatorium: Life in California’s Lung Resort for Women
By Lynn Downey
OU Press, $24.95, 302 pages
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, tuberculosis was on the rise, especially among working class people. In California, residual dust and ash from the 1906 earthquake combined with industrial pollution meant more people were getting sick than ever before, and the poorer women especially had very few treatment options. This book introduces readers to the Arequipa Sanatorium in Marin County, which was revolutionary at the time because it treated primarily lower class workers and held no overt racial biases. At Arequipa, women with the dreaded disease could take the much-needed time to rest and heal, allowing them to return to their lives with a renewed sense of vigor.